TWQ: Afghanistan: Building the Missing Link in the Modern Silk Road - Spring 2010
April 1, 2010
In the fall of 2009, the Obama administration undertook a lengthy review of its strategy for the war in Afghanistan that resulted in the controversial decision to increase the U.S. force presence by 30,000 troops in 2010 and to begin withdrawal in July 2011. Most of the spirited public debate revolves around security challenges, such as the number of troops, and choosing a balance between counterinsurgency or counterterrorism strategies. This is understandable given the major investments of blood and treasure the United States will continue to make in the effort to stabilize Afghanistan and root out terrorist threats. But even if U.S. and coalition forces are successful in bringing greater security to Afghanistan, these gains will be short-lived if the United States does not develop a more comprehensive regional strategy now. This strategy must go beyond “AfPak” and should make the longer-term economic viability of Afghanistan as high a priority as increasing its near-term security.
In the first half of 2009, the United States established several new transit corridors to deliver nonlethal goods to its forces in Afghanistan. Collectively, these new supply lines have been termed the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). Establishing the NDN has engaged new states in cooperation on the Obama administration’s first security priority, which is to stabilize Afghanistan. Some individuals are concerned that the NDN makes the United States more vulnerable to certain states, such as Russia and Uzbekistan, whose interests may not be fully aligned with Washington’s. Though this worry is justified, critics of the NDN underestimate the economic and political opportunities it has created.
When we began our research in the spring of 2009, we understood that the NDN had the potential to alter the geopolitics of Eurasia as the United States strengthened cooperation with Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. We did not, however, fully anticipate the extent to which our research would highlight the essential importance of a broader Afghan strategy built around a regional trading network akin to the ancient Silk Road of millennia past. Lest we be accused of being wild-eyed dreamers, we acknowledge that the NDN was designed to serve the military’s mission in Afghanistan, not to build a Modern Silk Road. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the numerous interviews we conducted with U.S. government officials was their realization that the NDN could serve broader U.S. goals in and beyond Afghanistan. We found that foreign government officials were even more enthusiastic about the opportunities created to expand regional trade and transport. Furthermore, the Afghans themselves understand that their future prosperity is tied to Afghanistan’s central role in a reconstituted Eurasian trading network.